In October 2019, a post circulated showing a natural rock formation known as “Six Grandfathers” before it was carved into what most Americans now call “Mount Rushmore.”
The original tweet was shared in July 2017 by @TheAriDee:
For anyone curious, here's what Six Grandfathers looked like before they defiled it by carving a bunch of old white men into it. pic.twitter.com/UeUonkHa8I
— Ari Dee (@TheAriDee) July 31, 2017
Alongside an image of an unaltered rock formation, the post said:
For anyone curious, here’s what Six Grandfathers looked like before they defiled it by carving a bunch of old white men into it.
A small watermark indicated the image was originally published in LIFE, an entertainment magazine published weekly until the early 1970s (and intermittently after that until 2000) that was famous for its photography. A partial version of the edited caption was shared various times to Reddit, and on r/climbing alone twice:
A top comment on the 2013 version didn’t reference what stood before Mount Rushmore, but remarked:
Surely I can’t be alone in thinking the carving shat up the landscape?
Just under it, another commented:
FYI the Treaty of Fort Laramie from 1868 had previously granted the Black Hills to the Lakota in perpetuity. So fuck that ’cause we need some old white people on that sacred mountain shit right?
Another version of the image and similar commentary appeared on Twitter in August 2019, when one user retweeted a “Mount Rushmore before carving” tweet and another commented:
This is the Six Grandfathers. It was a Lakota sacred site located in the Black Hills, ancestral lands promised to the Lakota in the Fort Laramie Treaty. The Six Grandfathers was destroyed to create a monument to colonizers after the Black Hills were stolen when gold was found. https://t.co/2VXLfeFe8X
— Ruth H. Hopkins, B.S., M.S., J.D. (@Ruth_HHopkins) August 11, 2019
Images labeled “Mount Rushmore before carving” seemed to follow a conversational pattern on social media, in which the latter caption and image was shared and sparked claims that the image showed a natural rock formation that had been called Six Grandfathers, it was sacred to the Lakota people, and that it was originally preserved for indigenous Americans under perpetual treaty.
Au August 2017 Vice article related to the debate over Confederate monuments examined Mount Rushmore’s colonialist history, observing that a common trope in film and on television involves a villain demonstrating egotistical weakness by carving their own face into Mount Rushmore:
Let’s start on a minor note: Mount Rushmore isn’t even finished. The monument was originally intended to show four presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln—from the waist up, as well as a large representation of the Louisiana Purchase, giant facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a secret room behind Lincoln’s head. But construction stopped in 1941, shortly after the original sculptor’s death, and as it stands today, Lincoln is still missing an ear. The rocks lying below the carving? Those aren’t naturally occurring; that’s the rubble from rock blown away with dynamite.
Much more importantly, Mount Rushmore is only monumental in its hubris and deeply rooted racism. Countless comics, films, and television shows have depicted megalomaniacs carving their own faces into Mount Rushmore, while letting the original megalomania and racism slide. There is something so American about looking at the enormity of nature—at millions-of-years-old rock—and thinking, “You know what this needs? White guys.”
Villains, especially cartoon villains, are remarkably narcissistic and prone to childish vandalism. Whenever there’s a landmark with a famous face on it, there’s a good chance the villain will demonstrate his need for attention by putting their own face on it instead (or some ridiculous caricature of a real face, to emphasize their whimsicality). Mount Rushmore (which features U.S. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, in case you’ve forgotten) is an especially frequent target of this; the Statue of Liberty and the Great Sphinx of Giza are other popular venues for refacement.
Rushmore’s chief sculptor was John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, better known as Gutzon Borglum. Borglum was evidently extremely friendly with deeply unsavory people. For example, the “Mount Rushmore” project was funded in part by the Ku Klux Klan:
The son of polygamist Mormons from Idaho, Borglum had no ties to the Confederacy, but he had white supremacist leanings. In letters he fretted about a “mongrel horde” overrunning the “Nordic” purity of the West, and once said, “I would not trust an Indian, off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Above all, he was an opportunist. He aligned himself with the Ku Klux Klan, an organization reborn—it had faded after the Civil War—in a torch-light ceremony atop Stone Mountain in 1915. While there isn’t proof that Borglum officially joined the Klan, which helped fund the project, “he nonetheless became deeply involved in Klan politics,” John Taliaferro writes in Great White Fathers, his 2002 history of Mount Rushmore.
Borglum’s decision to work with the Klan wasn’t even a sound business proposition. By the mid-1920s, infighting left the group in disarray and fundraising for the Stone Mountain memorial stalled. Around then, the South Dakota historian behind the Mount Rushmore initiative approached Borglum—an overture that enraged Borglum’s Atlanta backers, who fired him on February 25, 1925. He took an ax to his models for the shrine, and with a posse of locals on his heels, fled to North Carolina.
An August 2017 article in Colorlines.com went into the history of the mountain and the sacred monument known as “Six Grandfathers” by the region’s indigenous Americans:
One of those treaties [between the government and indigenous Americans], known alternately as the Sioux Treaty of 1868 and the Treaty of Fort Laramie, seemingly granted the Sioux autonomy over a reservation that included all of South Dakota’s land west of the Missouri River … The National Archives state that the government first violated the 1868 treaty just six years after it was signed, when General George A. Custer led a military expedition to the Black Hills. The Lakota Sioux regard these hills as sacred, but the government’s quest for the gold found in that range took precedence over tribal sovereignty. Miners flooded the area and demanded U.S. protection from Sioux peoples protecting their land, which lead to further military incursions and the U.S. seizing the land in 1877.
Nearly fifty years later, president Calvin Coolidge authorized workers to turn one of the Black Hills—”The Six Grandfathers,” which PBS says the Lakota Sioux named after the Earth, sky and four directions—into a carved edifice bearing the faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Vice summarized the events in that interim “fifty years” in an article headlined, appropriately enough, “Mount Rushmore’s Extremely Racist History”:
The Black Hills region was designated “unfit for civilization,” and “Permanent Indian Country” in the 1850s. But when General Custer surveyed the area and reported that his men had discovered gold, white people came running. President [Ulysses S.] Grant secretly ordered the army not to protect the native residents, and bounty hunters began collected up to $300 per Indian killed. The Sioux were forcibly evicted from their land, and the mountain formerly known as Six Grandfathers was named after the first white man to express interest in it. In 1884, New York City lawyer Charles E. Rushmore asked his guide what Six Grandfathers was called. His guide replied, “Never had a name, but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.”
Six Grandfathers was sacred to the Lakota Sioux. The mountain was named after the ancestral spirits who came to Lakota medicine man Black Elk in a vision, and any construction on that land would have been an insult … Of course, the US government has a long history of violating treaties with Indigenous populations. But the Black Hills are special insofar as the Supreme Court actually agreed that the land was taken illegally in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. The Court ruled in 1980 that the US owed the Sioux Nation the 1877 price for the land, along with 100 years of interest. The Sioux rejected the cash settlement because they still want the land back.
A 2013 piece in Cabinet Magazine noted that the Sioux never accepted the hefty repayment offered to them in 1980, aiming instead to get their land back:
In 1980, after decades of filing claims, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sioux Nation, acknowledging that the Black Hills had been appropriated illegally by the US government when it broke the treaty of 1868. But the court also declared that the passage of time made the return of Sioux lands impossible and ordered a $120 million reparation payment. The Sioux refused the money and in 1982 the Committee for the Return of the Black Hills was formed, consisting of one representative from each Sioux tribe. The committee got the support of New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley (Dem.), who sponsored their legislation in Congress. Representatives of South Dakota led the fight against the bill to return 1.3 of the 7.5 million acres of land the Supreme Court said belonged to the Sioux. The bill was defeated in 1987. In 1990 further legislation over the Black Hills claim was defeated on Capitol Hill. South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle (Dem.) established the Open Hills Association in his home state, an organization dedicated to fighting future attempts by the Sioux to regain the Paha Sapa. Daschle also began using Mount Rushmore to raise campaign money, charging “guests” $5,000 dollars each for a helicopter ride to the top of Washington’s head—an area designated off-limits by the National Park Service.
That article went on to note that as of 2013, the value of the $120 million repayment, with interest, had grown to about $570 million. In 2015, LIFE‘s sibling publication TIME profiled Bill Groethe, who has been taking photographs of the stone face that became Mount Rushmore since its inception.
Posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit showed “Mount Rushmore before carving,” typically eliciting claims that native lands had been defaced for the monument. The underlying history is both far more detailed and nuanced, but no less reflective of that claim. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the lands on which Mount Rushmore stands were stolen illegally from the Lakota peoples when an 1868 treaty was violated. Court-ordered compensation initially valued at $120 million (which had more than quadrupled nearly 35 years later) lay untouched by the Sioux — who are waiting for their land to be returned, as they were promised so many years before.